The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership

The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership

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by John Wooden, Steve Jamison

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“A sure winner! The Essential Wooden presents the basics of leadership

as taught by one of America's great leaders, John Wooden. His observations

and conclusions about success and competitive greatness are as

brilliant as gems—and just as valuable.”

—KEN BLANCHARD, coauthor of The One Minute Manager®

and Leading

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“A sure winner! The Essential Wooden presents the basics of leadership

as taught by one of America's great leaders, John Wooden. His observations

and conclusions about success and competitive greatness are as

brilliant as gems—and just as valuable.”

—KEN BLANCHARD, coauthor of The One Minute Manager®

and Leading at a Higher Level

The Essential Wooden is vintage Coach Wooden and a great book for

all managers who want to become more effective. Coach Wooden's values

and methods will lead to lasting, positive results.”

—JEFF HENLEY, Chairman of the Board, Oracle Corporation

“It has been my privilege to have several conversations with John

Wooden. Every time I learn and grow from that experience. It is now your

turn to receive nuggets of wisdom from this wonderful teacher. Each

page of The Essential Wooden will benefit you and your organization.”

—JOHN C. MAXWELL, author, speaker, and founder

INJOY Stewardship Services and EQUIP

“A wonderful exposition of commonsense leadership from an uncommon

leader—John Wooden. His legendary achievements stem from his

'old-fashioned' values. In The Essential Wooden he reveals how his character

and skills were honed and how they apply in the 21st century.

Required reading for anyone who aspires to being a great leader.”

—STEPHEN R. COVEY, author, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective

People and The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness

"There is nothing fancy in what I teach about team building—nothing that requires a special gift, privilege, or access to power. Rather, it requires dedication to certain principles and concepts, which I include in this book."

—John Wooden

The Essential Wooden is the ultimate collection of Wooden's opinions and observations on achieving exceptional leadership in any organization, with 200 invaluable lessons for inspiring championship performance.

Coach Wooden offers his hard-won wisdom on building an organization that performs at its full potential under pressure, from preparing and training the team to instilling personal drive and dedication. He takes his famous Pyramid of Success to the next level, filling the entire book with his straight-shooting personality and keen insight on human nature.

Wooden shares rarely seen preseason letters to his players, revealing how he instilled productive attitudes and winning ways. He also includes previously unpublished analyses from former players and managers, including Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

From Wooden's earliest days as a leader through his legendary UCLA dynasty, The Essential Wooden distills a lifetime of learning into the leadership playbook for the twenty-first century.

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McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
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A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership


Copyright © 2007 John Wooden and Steve Jamison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-148435-0

Chapter One



If each of you makes every effort to develop to the best of your ability, follow the proper rules of conduct and activity most conducive to good physical condition, subordinate individual acclaim for the welfare of the team, and permit no personality clashes or differences of opinion with teammates or coaches to interfere with your or a teammate's efforts, it will be a very rewarding year.

Who I Am

I am a lucky man—a teacher. I believe that teaching may be the most rewarding job on earth. Perhaps the most important next to being a parent.

What follows is my philosophy of leadership, my concept of success and how to achieve it, and my approach to coaching (which is another word for "team building"). I've spent most of my professional life teaching all three. All three are bound together as essential elements of my overall system.

In his dictionary, Mr. Webster's definition of what a teacher does is illuminating: giving "instruction and guidance with a specific end in mind until rapid and successful execution of assigned duties and tasks is assured."

For four decades, I tried to accomplish this as a leader and coach who taught members of the team how to successfully execute their assigned roles and responsibilities at the uppermost level of their abilities in ways that best serve the group.

Regardless of the profession, all good leaders strive for this same result, and I've never met one worth his or her salt who wasn't a good teacher.

Leadership's Greatest Reward

Mr. Webster fails to mention that during the process of being a teacher, coach, and leader, something extraordinary can occur: You will actually create an honest-to-goodness team, its members joined in a way comparable only to being in a strong family with bonds that last a lifetime.

That is what I love so dearly about leadership. Over and over again it allowed me the privilege of building and being part of that special family we call "a team," a group of individuals striving to achieve competitive greatness and success. I am a lucky man.

The Prerequisite for Leadership

These words are worth consideration. They go straight to the core of a being an effective leader: "Live as though you'll die tomorrow. Learn as though you'll live forever."

The words convey a fitting sense of energy and urgency. Don't squander a single day, and seek knowledge as if you will never die. It is an instruction on how to be an enlightened leader—one who lasts.

Longevity in leadership is related, in part, to your love of learning and the sense of urgency you attach to it.

Leaders Never Stop Learning

Ben Franklin made this observation about a fellow he had known in Philadelphia: "The man died at 25, but wasn't buried until 75." Mr. Franklin was describing a man who stopped learning early on.

In my field of work the leader is called "a coach." To excel as a coach and leader, you must be a good teacher; to excel as a teacher, leader, and coach, you must remain a student who keeps learning. You must not die at 25.

I believe the key to learning is listening with both your ears and your eyes. For me, it happened gradually, but it happened because I was blessed with teachers worth listening to.

A Compass for Character

We play to win, of course, but what happens prior to the final score is even more important. Whatever I did as a leader, teacher, and coach started with one man: Joshua Hugh Wooden. He has been my compass in leadership and life—the person who taught me about the final score and what precedes and supersedes it.

My father was a remarkable person. In large part self-schooled (just like Abe Lincoln), he was drawn to the classics in literature and poetry. He had keen intelligence, common sense, and resilient physical and emotional strength. Dad possessed a near-photographic memory. I still smile when I remember him sitting in the kitchen working on a crossword puzzle—in ink. Rarely did he make a mistake.

He also had a practical kind of wisdom. For example, he constantly reminded his four young sons to abide by what he called his "two sets of three"—simple directives for good behavior: His first set dealt with integrity:

1. Never lie.

2. Never cheat.

3. Never steal.

Dad's second set of three was advice on how to behave when things don't work out right:

1. Don't whine.

2. Don't complain.

3. Don't make excuses.

His "two sets of three" were evident in his actions. He was consistent in word and deed, a model of the strength and self-confidence that comes with character.

Joshua Hugh Wooden worked hard to support his family on our farm in Centerton, Indiana, and though cash was in short supply, we always had food on the table. Mom canned fruits and vegetables; Dad butchered hogs and chickens. Even in the darkest days of winter we might have pork chops, carrots, fresh milk, and cherry cobbler for supper.

When bad fortune forced us off the farm in 1926, we moved into nearby Martinsville, where my father found work at a local sanitarium.

My dad believed that people should have a worthwhile and productive philosophy of life if they are to amount to anything. Although I fall short in living up to his teachings, I have found them to be meaningful in every phase of life—especially when it comes to leadership.

Let me share the primary concepts that stuck with me when I went out on my own after graduating from Purdue University—ideas that, in turn, led to my own approach to competition and success.

I will also share some basics of leadership from two other men of character who informed my teaching.

Use Strength Quietly

Scattered around the farmland where I grew up in Centerton, Indiana, were gravel pits. The county would pay local farmers to take a team of mules or horses into a pit and haul out loads of gravel for use on Morgan County roads. Some pits were deeper than others, and it would be tough for a team to pull a wagon filled with gravel out through the wet sand and up a steep incline.

One steamy summer day a young farmer—20 years old or so—was trying to get his team of horses to pull a fully loaded wagon out of the pit. He was whipping and cursing those two beautiful plow horses that were frothing at the mouth, stomping, and pulling back from him.

Dad watched for a while and then went over and said to the farmer, "Let me take 'em for you." I think the farmer was relieved to hand over the reins.

First Dad started talking to the horses, almost whispering to them, and stroking their noses with a soft touch. Then he walked between them, holding their bridles and bits while he continued talking—very calmly and gently—as they settled down.

Gradually he stepped out in front of them and gave a little whistle to start them moving forward while he guided the reins. Within moments, those two big plow horses pulled the wagon out of the gravel pit as easy as could be. As if they were happy to do it.

No whip, no temper tantrum, no screaming and swearing by Dad. I've never forgotten what I saw him do and how he did it.

Over the years I've seen a lot of leaders act like that angry young farmer who lost control and resorted to force and intimidation. Their results were often the same, that is, no results.

So much more can usually be accomplished with Dad's calm, confident, and steady approach. For many of us, however, the temptation, our first instinct, is to act like the farmer—to use force rather than to apply strength in a measured and even gentle manner. Unfortunately, in my early years the former—force—was close in some respects to my own approach as a leader.

When I see this quote by Abraham Lincoln, I think of my dad and that day in the gravel pit: "There is nothing stronger than gentleness." Dad was a very strong man with a gentle touch.

Know the Difference between Strength and Force

The biggest motivator is a pat on the back from someone you respect—although sometimes that "pat" has to be a little lower and harder. This is true with a team of horses; it's true for members of any team.

Dad understood which pat was necessary and when to give it. He understood the difference between force and strength.

Eventually a lot of Dad's approach became part of my own leadership—sometimes being firm, sometimes being flexible, sometimes having the strength to be gentle, and sometimes having the strength to force compliance.

It takes some maturity—the wisdom of learned experience—to get it right, but when you do, you'll see that although force may on occasion be appropriate, there is usually nothing stronger than gentleness.

Leadership Strength

Some observers would laugh at the notion that I was ever gentle in my approach to coaching. In one sense, they might be correct. I had a very no-nonsense attitude and could be stern and demanding; many would say "strict." I could also have a gentle approach like Dad's.

I think I eventually handled criticism in this way, with tolerance and understanding rather than anger or lashing out. For example, in 1970 at the team banquet following the close of our season—one that included a sixth national championship—Bill Seibert was one of the players who spoke to the audience that had gathered to celebrate.

His comments included very sharp personal criticism. Among other things, he said that I had a double standard that favored some players and was lacking in my ability to communicate with the team.

Then in front of everyone, including me, Bill said that his years on the UCLA varsity basketball team had been a very unpleasant experience for him.

I was stunned and embarrassed but not angry. Bill and I spoke later, and, in fact, soon afterward I addressed the team and told them of my willingness to listen and work even harder to be fair and communicative.

My response—a productive reaction—was not what I would have been able to do early in my coaching career. I had gradually been able to bring more of Dad's approach into my teaching.

Additionally, my sincere interest in the lives of those under my supervision was similar to what Joshua Wooden might have done. Before practice I'd talk to individual players: "How's Mom?" "Did your sister enjoy her visit here?" "How'd you do in the math test?" Honest communication unrelated to the serious business ahead—our practice.

During practice we practiced extremely hard, but even then I understood which players needed a gentler approach to criticism and instruction. (Let me also assure you this didn't come easily for me. It takes strength inside to be gentle on the outside. I was no softy—not in the slightest—but I gradually was able to trust myself in following Dad's example when it was appropriate.)

Those I taught, all of them, will tell you that our practices were both businesslike and grueling—extremely so. I believe they would also say that I was able to utilize a gentle touch when appropriate and to crack the whip when necessary.

There is great strength in gentleness—perhaps the greatest strength of all. Without it, your leadership begins to resemble the approach of a prison guard standing watch over a chain gang. Turn your back, and they're gone.


JOHN GASSENSMITH South Bend Central Bears, 1941–1943

Occasionally, we took a 10-minute break, and he lectured us about life situations. As we sat on the court around him, he might say, "I want you all to remember the following: (1) Don't smoke. It's not good for you. (2) Respect your parents and coaches. (3) Compliment your mother tonight on how good supper is." His concerns for us went beyond basketball. Coach Wooden cared about our lives.

My Dad's Seven-Point Creed

When I graduated from Centerton Grade School, Dad gave me a little card that he titled "7 Suggestions to Follow." It was his graduation present to me. While he didn't have much money, it wasn't just a financial concern that prompted his gift but something else.

James Russell Lowell wrote a poem that starts like this: "It's not what we give, but what we share/For the gift without the giver is bare."

Dad wanted to share something from his heart. This is what he wrote on the card, and, when he handed it to me, he gave a little wink of encouragement and said, "Johnny, follow this and you'll do all right":

1. Be true to yourself.

2. Help others.

3. Make each day your masterpiece.

4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Good Book.

5. Make friendship a fine art.

6. Build a shelter for a rainy day.

7. Pray for guidance, and count and give thanks for your blessings each day.

Those seven suggestions deeply influenced my behavior as the years went by. In fact, soon enough I was not calling them "suggestions." For many decades I have referred to them as "Dad's Seven-Point Creed." All of them are important, but let me expand on one in particular.

Character and Integrity

Shakespeare wrote the following words in Hamlet: "This above all else: to thine own self be true." It was the king's consul, Polonius, offering fatherly advice to his own son, Laertes, before he returned to France.

This same advice, worded differently, was the first of the seven suggestions my father gave me: "Be true to yourself."

Those four words, "Be true to yourself," have been a part of my life ever since—more so, of course, as I matured. Along the way I've given much thought to their meaning: Be true to yourself—to what you believe in your heart is right.

Obviously Dad was encouraging me to stay the course when faced with obstacles. Don't be swayed by fashion or fancy. Stick with what you believe in. But he was also talking about something beyond having the courage of your convictions. He wanted my convictions to be sound and decent. Dad wanted me to do the right thing.

But what is right? That's the real question.

A robber may believe it is right to rob; a politician may believe it is right to accept favors for influence; a man may believe the end justifies the means; all tyrants believe they are right. What is right?

This question is one you must ask and answer, especially when you are in a leadership position. What is right? To what should you be true?

These questions go to the heart of who you are as a person and leader, to your character and integrity, to how you treat people.

What is right? What is your answer?

Let me pass along Dad's rule for behaving in an ethical manner—doing what is right. It is simple, to the point, and free of hyperbole. For me it has been the touchstone I return to whenever I seek to answer any question involving integrity, ethics, or character. It was the principle I tried to apply in my relationships with those under my supervision. Here is Dad's simple guide for knowing what is right: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Why Character Counts

When spring arrived each year in Indiana, the warming weather would slowly soften the ice covering a little pond near our farm. While the ice still looked safe and solid, strong enough to walk on, it was very dangerous.

Some called it "rotten ice." Step on it here, and you were fine; step on it there, and it would give way—you'd fall through. The ice was undependable.

A leader who finds it difficult to abide by the Golden Rule is like that Indiana ice in springtime—undependable, untrustworthy. Without trust between a team and leader, there really is no team at all—just a collection of individuals who don't amount to much.

I have found the Golden Rule to be a good place to start when I seek answers on how to treat members of a team. Unfortunately, too often we see leaders who do not abide by the Golden Rule, who have no basis for behavior and decision making other than what will make them more money.

I'm not suggesting that treating people the way you wish to be treated means giving them special favors or what they don't deserve. A player who isn't good enough to be a starter, an individual who doesn't have the talent to make the team, won't be a starter and won't be on the team. That's fair. And ultimately the Golden Rule is about fairness and decency—treating people right.

If that rule strikes you as being out of date, impractical, naïve, or corny, I believe you are wrong. I would not want to be on your team or have you on mine.

Conversely, a leader who treats people right will find that the right kind of people are drawn to his or her organization. Why? Because character counts.


I'm asked, "Coach Wooden, have you abided by your father's advice, followed his example, and been true to what he taught?"

I can only say that I've tried hard to conduct myself in a way that would make him proud. Which means, "No, but I've tried." These words explain it:

I'm not what I ought to be; Not what I want to be; Not what I am going to be; But I'm thankful I am not what I used to be.

And that's the truth. Whatever progress I made along the way is due in large part to Dad and his teachings.

His was the standard of character I sought to emulate and the standard I aspired to as a teacher and leader.


Excerpted from THE ESSENTIAL Wooden by JOHN WOODEN STEVE JAMISON Copyright © 2007 by John Wooden and Steve Jamison. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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